What Is Grass-Fed Beef, and How Is It Regulated?

As summer ends, many of us can look back on some great barbequed treats enjoyed with family and friends. Among those foods there may have been a juicy burger, a tender steak, or beef sausages. Summer dishes aside, beef products are often featured in our year-round grocery carts. And if you’ve visited the meat section of your local store, you’ve likely taken note of—or purchased!—the beef products labeled as “grass-fed.” But what exactly is grass-fed beef, and how does its production compare with that of other beef products? Let’s take a look at the regulations and food-labeling practices that ensure our red-meat supply is both healthy and nutritious.

Food-Producing Animal Care

Wholesome, safe, and reliable animal-derived products begin with the proper care of farm and ranch animals. Part of livestock’s responsible and humane care includes the diet that is supplied to the animals. To help ensure that farm animals are fed a healthy diet, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) upholds the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. The FDA must approve animal feed that is given to farm animals in a way that is similar to how they decide what is safe for people to eat. Additionally, animal feed receives overview by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). AAFCO comprises state and federal feed regulators that oversee the approval process for feed ingredients.

In addition to being well-fed, animals produced for food should also receive medical attention when they become sick. For example, veterinarians and animal-food producers have long administered antibiotics to food animals (primarily poultry, swine, and cattle, and mostly for the purposes of fighting or preventing diseases). The FDA has provided a tightly regulated framework for how antibiotics can be used safely in the food supply. Importantly, livestock must go through a withdrawal period after receiving antibiotics in order for the antibiotic to vacate the animal’s system before the animal goes to processing.

Furthermore, regulations exist to ensure animals can live (and, ideally, move) in appropriate surroundings. Many states are enacting laws that ban holding pens and ensure that cages are larger to allow animals space for ample movement. In addition, many kinds of meat production industries have robust resources that teach farmers about proper handling, care techniques, and safe facilities management for the animals on their farms.

Food Safety Regulation

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a stringent set of rules that work to assure high safety standards for meat products, and meat processors must follow these rules in order to operate as legal and federally recognized establishments. These rules include the stipulation that slaughter facilities cannot conduct slaughter operations if the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) personnel are not present. Specifically, FSIS is responsible for ensuring the safety and wholesomeness of meat, poultry, and processed egg products and ensures that they are accurately labeled. Only federally inspected establishments can produce products that are destined to enter interstate commerce or be exported to foreign countries. These rules must be followed in order to avoid citations from inspectors and the halting of operations.

What’s In A Label?

There are USDA meat product labels that describe quality, what portion of a carcass is suitable for consumption, and what type of feed was supplied to the animal. There are three labels for quality:

  1. Prime: This is the highest grade of quality and is generally sold in hotels and restaurants. Meat labeled as prime tends to have abundant marbling, or strands of fat throughout the meat that contribute to flavor.
  2. Choice: This label denotes high-quality meat that has less marbling than prime meat. Steaks from the loin or rib are typically classified as choice meat. These include cuts you would typically find in a grocery store.
  3. Select: This meat is very uniform in quality, but leaner than higher grades of meat. It tends to lack juiciness due to its lack of fat.

Yield grades refer to usable meat from the carcass of an animal. Meat is assigned a grade on a scale of 5 to 1. A grade of 1, the highest grade, indicates the greatest ratio of lean meat to fat (more meat and less fat). A grade of 5 indicates the lowest lean meat-to-fat ratio (more fat and less lean). Consumers are not likely to see this grading at the grocery store, but it is used by all processors and suppliers.

In addition, product labels such as “grass-fed” give us insight into how an animal was fed and cared for. This label can be used voluntarily by a producer, and according to the USDA, “Grass (Forage) Fed” means that grass and forage shall be the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning. The diet shall be derived solely from forage consisting of grass (annual and perennial), forbs (e.g., legumes, Brassica), browse, or cereal grain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state. Animals cannot be fed grain or grain byproducts and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season.” Additionally, the agency notes that beef producers can (and may be asked to) provide proof of these types of label claims. Thus, the producer must submit support of these label claims to the USDA Labeling and Consumer Protection Staff for approval.

You may ask yourself if “grass-fed” indicates a higher-quality or safer beef product. Recent research has shown that many consumers think so; however, research has also shown that—at least in terms of safety—this is not true. Multiple studies have indicated that “grass-fed beef has not been proven to be less likely to cause foodborne illness—from bacteria, viruses, or toxin contamination—nor is food safety officially a stated benefit of the label.” When it comes to the nutritional profile of grass-feed beef versus conventionally made beef, grass-fed has been shown to have more favorable fatty acid (FA) composition and antioxidant content. However, an important limitation to this benefit is that the overall concentration of saturated fatty acids are not impacted by cattle’s diet. In sum, all kinds of lean red meat (conventional or grass-fed) can contribute to a healthy diet that has many nutritional benefits.

Beef’s Bottom Line

If you choose to buy grass-fed beef as opposed to conventionally grain-fed beef, you are purchasing an equally safe product that is regulated by the USDA. And it’s important to remember that the protein found in all red meat, as with other animal-based products, is considered a complete protein source, providing our bodies with all the essential amino acids in adequate amounts. And although most of us associate red meat with high saturated fat, it turns out that less than half of the fat content in lean red meat is actually saturated. So choosing lean meats (those that are lower in total fat) over those that are higher in fat is a good way to reduce our intake of saturated fatty acids. Lean meats are defined as having no more than 4.5 grams of saturated fatty acids, no more than 10 grams of total fat, and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol. The good news for red meat eaters? Beef—like many foods—can be a healthy part of a varied and nutritious diet, as long as you’re informed properly about food labels and making thoughtful choices!